The Portrait that Inspired the Novel
My husband, Steve, and I bought “Bird Girl” by Ludmila Mikhailovna Sgibneva on a dreary Sunday in Moscow. We were newlyweds and had spent the day at a lazy brunch with friends. It had been a long drawn out affair with delicious food and bottomless Sovetskoye Shampanskoye. On the way home, we popped into an art gallery near our flat and that was the first time we saw “Bird Girl”. We both liked it immediately. Perhaps it was the sun-drenched scene or maybe it was the champagne but we decided to buy it.
Shortly after, we moved to a new posting in Cairo, followed by London, Cape Town and Dakar. The portrait went with us and always hung in our living room, no matter where we found ourselves. We finally settled in Southwest London.
I never knew anything about the artist until one night (fifteen years later!) I looked up Ludmila Mikhailovna Sgibneva on the internet. Very much to my surprise, the portrait which was hanging just beside me popped up on the screen. On closer inspection I realised it wasn’t exactly our portrait but it was the study and it hangs in a gallery in Ekaterinburg where the artist lives. The gallery also had a biography about her on their website and I learned that she had survived the Siege of Leningrad as a young girl and she is still painting today. I started looking at this portrait differently. Who is this girl? Why is she painted with all these geese? Why did Skibneva paint it way back in the 1979? What were the circumstances of why it was sold in 1999? How had Sgibneva endured all the chaotic years following the collapse of the Soviet Union? Sgibneva, who has lived through such a fascinating period of Russian history, intrigued me.
At the time, I had just left my job teaching English as a second language and was taking a Beginner Creative Writing Course at Richmond Adult Community College. I always enjoyed writing and I did not have any serious ambition to pursue writing. And I certainly never considered embarking on writing a novel! Encouraged by a fabulous teacher at RACC, I started creating a story of the portrait and the woman who created it.
I never contacted Sgibneva while I was writing but I very much felt her presence as this story developed. I have since contacted her by telephone to get permission to put the image of the painting on this website. She sounds exactly like I thought she would. I described the portrait and asked her if she remembered it. Her reply was quick and matter of fact. “Of course I remember. It’s my work.” And then the octogenarian suggested communicating via WhatsApp. I hope to meet her in person one day and learn the true story of the portrait.
Inspiration for stories are everywhere. You just have to notice when the idea finds you. And remember it is never too late to start a new project.